Last week, President Obama took the stage before a joint session of Congress to assure us that, after years of struggle, the state of our union is solid, and we are still the greatest country on earth.
But a growing number of signs – including some to which the president alluded – suggest otherwise. The most recent, and among the most disturbing, is a bulletin from the Southern Education Foundation. The report finds that, for the first time in at least half a century — since Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty – more than half of all US public school students live in low-income households.
That would certainly be more than bad enough if it were an isolated fact. Unfortunately, it’s not. In fact, the company we keep with a range of other countries across several major issues helps explain how our student body has come to be so desperately poor, and why a growing number of our schools are in such dire straits.
Our children’s problems begin long before they enter school. The odds of a child dying before reaching his or her fifth birthday, known as the child mortality rate, is one reflection of a nation’s health care system overall, and, in particular, the quality of accessible care for disadvantaged and pregnant women. The child mortality rate in the United States, seven of every 100,000 live births, is roughly double the average of Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Our rate is in line with the Balkan states of Macedonia and Serbia/Herzegovina, poorer countries with less-developed health care systems.
What’s more, after babies are born in the United States, their parents have fewer opportunities to bond with them and to ensure their early care than almost any other nation on earth. We are one of only four countries — along with Papua New Guinea, Surinam, and Liberia — with no paid parental leave law, leaving low-income children and parents particularly vulnerable.
Liberia and the United States also lack another policy that makes it difficult for low-income families with children to reliably care for them — paid sick leave. So, as President Obama noted in his State of the Union speech, US parents must make “wrenching” decisions. Serbia and Herzegovina are again keeping us company, along with Georgia, Russia, Turkey, India, and the African nations of Chad, Somalia, Mozambique and the Ivory Coast.
Compounding all of these factors is our sky-high incarceration rate, recently described as meteoric and unprecedented. While it declined slightly this past year, the US still locks up adults for what is deemed criminal behavior at rates five-to-ten times higher than our Western counterparts. The country that comes closest to us is Russia, hardly a nation known for judicious decision-making when it comes to putting people in prison. Even so, the US rate is over 50 percent higher. As a result, many more American children grow up without parents, or have parents with no viable way to earn a living.
We are in bad company. Lack of sufficient income for our public school students’ parents is a result of a broad range of policy decisions that make it increasingly difficult to raise healthy, happy children with the potential to thrive.
It’s hard to understand how we let things get so bad. Perhaps, in thinking of poor kids as somehow other — as “those kids” — we have failed to realize that we jeopardize all of our children, and our nation’s future. If the Southern Education Foundation bulletin has any silver lining, it is a wake-up call that the time to act is long past due.
Foundation Vice President Steve Suitts writes about his report’s sobering findings:
No longer can we consider the problems and needs of low income students simply a matter of fairness… Their success or failure in the public schools will determine the entire body of human capital and educational potential that the nation will possess in the future. Without improving the educational support that the nation provides its low income students – students with the largest needs and usually with the least support — the trends of the last decade will be prologue for a nation not at risk, but a nation in decline…
On Tuesday night, the president took some important first steps, putting forth an important agenda for the new Congress. He can jumpstart that work by continuing to push for an increase in the federal minimum wage, extending overtime pay, enhancing labor protections and advancing corrections reform. Perhaps most important of all, he should underscore the need to fight poverty with every federal, state and local policy tool at our disposal. In his final two years in office, he must address poverty as the national crisis it all too clearly is.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.